In 2008, Congress passed legislation requiring Class 1 railroads to implement Positive Train Control (PTC) by December 31, 2015. This was the nail in the coffin for the remaining “classic signals” left in the United States—the signals we grew up with. Semaphores, tri-lights, color position lights, and searchlights; all were slated to come down, replaced with the new “Darth Vader” signals that many despise. This new legislation’s deadline was extended, giving time to capture the last gasp of the “old signals” that are falling by the day on railroads all over the country.
Like many, I nearly waited too long to capture these unique structures before they were gone, so it was time to get moving. Last July it became apparent that if I was to see and capture any of these signals I would need to act quickly. A decision was made that, along with my dad, I would take off on a four day adventure through the Southwest to capture the last semaphores in mainline service in the United States. Little did I know, there were other gems to be found along the way. Read more
Railroads have long been known for doing things their own way. Often, this is quite contrary to the way things are done in other industries, and is perhaps even contradictory to logic. “Peculiar” would be a good word to describe the idiosyncrasies of railroads. But this is part of what endears the railroad to those of us afflicted with the love of the steel wheel upon the steel rail.
“There is no such thing as bad light,
just misunderstood light.”
That’s a quote I think a lot about. Like most photographers, I’m drawn to”blue hour” and “golden hour” light. It’s eye candy for us. Sometimes we get so obsessed with “good light,” though, that we ignore possibilities for other lighting situations. I find cloudy days wonderful for shooting detail shots with soft, even light. Night light (after blue hour) is made for contrasty, high drama photos. And yes, even harsh mid-day light can be useful.
This is a photograph that I took on a drive out on the plains east of my home in Pueblo, Colorado. The railroad line I’ve followed here is called the Towner Line and it’s part of the old Missouri Pacific Railroad. The line has faced some tough times lately and was poised to be abandoned and torn up. There’s an interesting legal case that may offer a reprieve, but even if that is the case, the line is still a shadow of its former self and faces many challenges.
The harsh mid-day light really called to me to tell that story. In this photo, we see the old signal with the lights and electrical components either scavenged or stolen. Colorado’s treeless plains form a background along with clouds that speak to the possibility of precipitation. What precipitation does fall will evaporate before hitting the ground and the strong winds caused by that effect will be the only hint of rain on this day. Life can be challenging on the high plains.
Had I taken this shot with the lower, warmer light of golden hour, I’m sure the result would have been more appealing aesthetically. However, I don’t think that it would have told the story that I intended it to. In the end, that’s always the most important component of any photo for me — conveying what it is that I feel when I take a photograph. In this particular instance, I’d like to think that I took a moment to understand the light as Mr. McCullin urged.
Railroads are generally thought of as extremely large, heavy and powerful entities. Their primary design and function was to be able to travel great distances with the aid of engineered cuts, fills, bridges and tunnels that enabled locomotives and their cars the ease of crossing wide plains and tall mountain ranges with great speed and ease.
With this fact in mind, it is easy to understand why the vast majority of photographic and artistic attention has been dedicated to illustrating the drama and excitement of railroads and their locomotives while conquering these geographic barriers.
What I have chosen to examine in this edition is some of the inner workings of a few of the overlooked pieces of hardware that is, or was at one time, a vital part of making the drama and excitement of crossing those mountain ranges and desert plains possible. Lanterns, semaphores and incandescent bulbs were once widely used on every railroad in the United States, North America and elsewhere around the world. The advancement of technology, the LED and computer chip to name a few, has rendered all of these items undesirable and in some cases illegal. Most are no longer visible in the landscape of today’s mainline railroad environment.
In 1908, the Corning Glass Works of New York developed Pyrex glass based on a request from the railroads to produce lantern glass that would not break when the hot glass was struck by rain or snow. Corning developed globes made from low-expansion glass that could withstand the abuses of weathering and rough handling by employees who readily broke the flint type glass globes of previously manufactured lamps and lanterns. Pyrex was later developed for use in switch lamps to act as a heat deflector and also to prevent the wind from blowing out the flame inside of the lamp housing. Pyrex was introduced to the public in 1925 and became universally accepted as tough, durable cookware that has since been used in millions of homes around the world. This photo is a study of a lantern at the Nevada Northern Railway that I made in 2009.
The Union Switch & Signal Style B semaphore was once the preeminent choice of signaling for railroads such as the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific. Developed in the latter part of the 19th century, the lower quadrant semaphore was a major step forward in railroad signaling and therefore the device quickly became synonymous with safe rail travel. The Southern Pacific even used a graphic version of the Style B semaphore surrounded by their familiar circular company logo. The particular signal in this photo was once located on the Southern Pacific’s Siskiyou line through Oregon at milepost 623.7 near Cottage Grove, Oregon. The shot was made in September 2000 shortly before many of the Style B’s were removed from service.
Resembling a somewhat advanced version of one of A.C. Gilbert’s Erector Sets, we’re viewing a close up study of the inner workings of the venerable Style B reduction gear and chain drive. This is the drive system that when actuated by current, regulates the position of, in this case, the “Home” and “Distance” aspects displayed by the spectacles and blades. This is part of a series of photos I made exclusively for The Trackside Photographer in June of 2016.
The heart of the Style B semaphore is its motor. This relatively small motor is capable of lifting the two 20 ft connecting rods, both of the heavy cast iron spectacles and the porcelain covered blades into the proper aspects as dictated by the current sent through the code line. The reduction gears are a great aid in enabling this low voltage motor to have the ability to lift the heavy apparatus. The glass bezel has been removed in order to reveal the fine craftsmanship of this century old signal in what was really one of the first steps in electro-mechanical robotics.
Concentric circles radiating outward from the filament inside this US&S Style R signal are a result of viewing the device from the open rear service door of the signal. The circle effect is caused by the Fresnel lens of Kopp Glass heritage. As glass bulbs with tungsten filaments eventually replaced kerosene illuminated signals and switch-lamps, the glass bulb is being nudged aside by the Light Emitting Diode or LED. For almost 100 years, the bulb was the heart and soul of every type of railroad signal imaginable. From CPL to wig wags, they all employed some form of the bayonet mount signal grade bulb. This image was made from a signal in my small collection displayed in my own back yard, which is why I was able to leisurely create this view.
An Adams & Westlake hand lantern once used on the Denver & Rio Grande Western is probably no stranger to cold snowy evenings. The many years of use and abuse by brakeman and conductors alike is obvious in the state of its dilapidated top and disconnected bar still circling and protecting the fragile glass globe that has also seen better days. But what character this piece of railroad history has! I’m sure if it could talk it would speak of tall tales of harrowing adventures, swinging at the end of a caboose or a galloping goose while winding in and out of the highest passes the Rocky Mountains had to offer. This photo was made during one chilly evening in the relative safety of the East Ely Yards of the Nevada Northern Railway in February of 2009.
Adams & Westlake, also known as Adlake, offered to their railroad customers many styles and variations of kerosene burning switch lamps. The large fuel tank seen at the bottom of the lamp would hold enough fuel for the flame to burn for many hours without a refill. Of course you would still need someone to light the flame in the evening and put it out in the morning. As you can imagine, it was quite a labor intensive activity to keep entire railroad yards full of these lamps fueled and illumined every night of the year regardless of adverse weather conditions one may encounter while preforming this duty. Many yard track switches are still protected by lamps but have long since converted to electrically powered devices such as the US&S ES (electric switch) 20. But even these signals are now, or have been, replaced by signals using LED illumination. Recently I was in Japan and saw an example of what appeared to be an Adlake type switch lamp. However this particular model was sporting LED’s in place of the traditional colored glass rondels. The photo above was made at the Nevada Northern Railway in February of 2009 with the kind permission of the director of the railroad.
Switch lamps are often times used as a foreground element but seldom are they the primary concern in the composition. This observation was a motivating factor in creating the last few images seen in this edition. In order to accomplish a series of images concentrating on these devices, I needed two elements to come together simultaneously. First, I needed access to a railroad that would allow this sort of photographic activity on their property and secondly, I needed access to a collection of kerosene burning lanterns and lamps. I found both of these requirements conveniently located in one place: the Nevada Northern Railway (NNRY) in Ely, Nevada. Every February for the last ten years I have conducted the night photo shoots at the railroad. But the evening photo shoots only took place during one evening out of the three days the event was being held, leaving at least two other nights available for other activates. With the kind permission of the management of the NNRY, and after the locomotives and rolling stock were all tied up for the night, I set out in the early hours of the evening to start making exposures just as the sun set behind the mountains to the west of town. Fresh snow and azure blue skies formed the perfect backdrop to show off the dramatic and vibrant colors of these old lamps. We actually used kerosene to light the lamps and lanterns, and at least one flashlight to rim light the dark, rusty bodies of the lanterns for better separation against some of the muted colors of the buildings in the background. Since 2009, when I first started doing this series, I think I’ve produced about twenty five images where lamps and lanterns are the primary element in the photo. The lamp in the image above is an example of a competitor to the Adams & Westlake Co, The Dressel Railway Lamp and Signal Company, with the D&RGW hand lantern by its side.
I have enjoyed a good long run photographing railroads and trains. As with any endeavor you wish to master, you must start with simple compositions. Perhaps it’s simply shooting the train at the station or the train at the grade crossing, or maybe it’s shooting a train while crossing a bridge. Capturing images like these help master your technique, learning shutter speeds, f-stops and framing. These are all basic elements in the process of learning to document the world around you as you see it, in your time and place.
I’m very grateful for the efforts of those photographers that preceded me. Their mastering of rail related subjects to the point where I was inspired enough to imitate them is the basis of my work today. Then at some point in the game, one develops the desire to express something more than shooting the train at the station, the crossing or the bridge. You search for other subject material that challenges you to create your own mark, you own style that hopefully will inspire others to document and create their own vision with whatever image-capturing devices the future holds for them.
For the most part, I think I have accomplished everything I needed to accomplish in shooting kerosene lamps at night in the snow. I’ve moved on to explore other subjects in railroading. Maybe they’ll show up here on this site in some future edition of The Trackside Photographer.
Steve Crise – Photographs and text Copyright 2016
See more of Steve’s work at www.scrise.com
Winslow Junction is located at the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens almost exactly half way between Philadelphia and the resorts in Atlantic City. The site is surprisingly rural for something set in the most densely populated area of the United States. However, 100 years ago Winslow Junction could boast some of the highest traffic densities in the world as two railroads competed to bring millions of middle and working class passengers to the fun and leisure of the New Jersey shore.
In the few decades between the time when workers developed the ability to enjoy leisure time in the late 19th century, and when private automobiles and inexpensive air travel expanded their options in the mid 20th, Atlantic City was one of several resort cities that owed their fortunes to efficient rail transport. Like Brighton Beach, New York and Brighton, England, Atlantic City relied on a conveyor belt-like system of trains that whisked holiday seekers from the urban core to the beach in the brief period when they were released from their jobs. Winslow Junction sat at the nexus of this system, located at the point where the Central Railroad of New Jersey’s Southern Division crossed both the Camden and Atlantic (PRR) and Atlantic City Railroad (Reading) main lines. It was also the point where the ACRR’s Cape May branch split off from their Main Line with additional connections to the CNJ for its famed “Blue Comet” express service to New York City.
Improving road transport brought rapid change to the Atlantic City travel market and in 1933 the competing Pennsylvania Railroad and Reading System operations were merged into the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines. In 1934 the state of the art WINSLOW tower and its associated interlocking was constructed to bind the system together at its nexus point, replacing older mechanical towers and antiquated signaling. The air operated switches and cab signals were installed on over 5 route miles of track, all controlled from a single power interlocking machine in a brand new brick tower.
However the story of Winslow Junction from then on would be mostly one of decline. As Atlantic City faded, tracks were cut back and the main lines were downgraded. Finally, in 1983. passenger service to the shore was suspended and the interlocking plant in the middle of the Jersey pines was shuttered for good. Fortunately, state ownership meant that the artifacts were largely left in place. Reconstruction of the Atlantic City rail line in 1989 swept away some of the decay, but the tower’s unbroken windows still let in sunlight to shine on the Model 14 interlocking machine for nearly 20 years before they were boarded up.
The main line to Atlantic City that in its heyday hosted the fastest scheduled passenger train service in the world is now a single track line with short passing sidings and a top speed of 80mph. The interlocking that remains in sight of the tower is just a single crossover at the south end of one of those sidings. The former southward main is now just a glorified storage track, albeit one sporting 136lb main line rail with some joints still still paper thin.
Year by year, bit by bit, more of Winslow’s history succumbs to collectors, vandals and nature. The telegraph poles have fallen to those interested in the copper wire or blue glass insulators. The power supply was bulldozed for PCB remediation and even the half mile long ramp for the Cap May flyover was completely harvested for its supply of high quality construction sand.
If anything, Winslow Junction is a testament to the force of nature to reclaim that which humanity tried to assert its dominance over.
At the same time it is a testament to those materials of the analogue age that continue to resist the forces of nature, decades after being left to fend for themselves. Creosoted wooden ties, lead painted pipelines and even rust covered structural steel still stand strong.
Many of the classic PRR position light signals at Winslow Junction were salvaged by local railroad enthusiasts during the Amtrak rebuilding project in the late 1980’s, however the former 8L signal stationed at the south junction of the connector track was rolled down the embankment to fade away.
The track connecting the former Atlantic City Line to what became the Conrail Beesley’s Point freight line saw a brief resurgence after the tower was closed as it was the only way that Atlantic City bound freight traffic could access the line after the portion between the Delair Bridge and Winslow Junction was taken out of service. When the line was rebuilt the interchange moved to SOUTH WINS interlocking and the S-curving connector was left to the weeds. In addition to the rails, this NJT friction bearing M of W flatcar found itself stuck in time.
Winslow Junction was built with no fewer than 6 rail-rail overpasses to allow movements to pass by each other without conflict. This amount of “flight” is typically reserved for busy urban junctions like Zoo, Harold or Jamaica. Elsewhere in the country, junctions similar to Winslow would have consisted of flat switches and diamond crossings.
The air for the switches was supplied by nearly 2.5 miles of pipeline, originating at WINSLOW tower and then following the CNJ Blue Comet connection up to the ACRR junction before splitting, with one line continuing down the Cape May branch and the other using the connecting track to serve the switches around the flyover bridge on the former PRR main line. Most of this impressive compressed air system was left in place where it is slowly being covered by leaves and vegetation.
Surprisingly this isn’t the only abandoned pipeline at Winslow Junction. On the remaining connecting track between the CNJ and Reading are a collection of concrete blocks dating from before even the depression era WINSLOW tower. These are foundations for the mechanical pipes that ran from the original ACRR Winslow Jct tower to switches and signals on the CNJ connection.
Nearly invisible from the track and ensconced in a thicket of brambles and weeds, the foundation for the 1890’s vintage Reading owned ACRR tower can still be found. The upper level was razed in 1934; the basement continued to be used as a remote relay room and possibly as a secondary air compressor station. Today, still water tight, it is used as a clubhouse for local teens, looking to consume adult beverages away from the prying eyes of adults.
Winslow Junction is a double accident of history. Constructed in the middle of nowhere to take the masses to the shore in the pre-auto era, it was left to fade away due to having become the ward of a state that couldn’t be bothered to properly dispose of it. Hopefully its secrets will linger on to inspire future generations of trackside explorers.
(All photographs were taken in November, 2015. Click here to view additional photos from Winslow Junction.}
While I was in high school, I used to visit the Lancaster, CA depot every Saturday. At the time, this SP depot had a semaphore train order signal and the operator let me lower the signal when there were no train orders for the next train and then raise the signal back to stop position after the train passed. This was my first experience with a semaphore signal. Later, when I was in the Navy, I traveled across the country and discovered many more semaphore signals along the Southern Pacific and several other railroads.
The operator is about to hand up train orders to the engineer on train 167. Train 167 has engines 3182, 3202, and 3052 with 112 cars.
The Burlington and Rock Island used joint trackage between Waxahatchie and Houston. Train 77, with engines 6494 and 6607, rolls through North Zulch, TX on April 5, 1980. The young lady standing next to the depot is not the operator, but my future bride. This was our first train chasing date. The depot was later destroyed when a grain train derailed at the site. Note the one signal blade is rounded and the other is square. Normally the Rock Island train order signals had rounded ends.
It is 8:30AM on February 3, 1973 at Black River interlocking tower south of Seattle, WA. Milwaukee Road number 3 was one of the rare FP45s. The engines have finished setting out the cars for Seattle in a small yard around the curve. Leaving the rest of their train in the yard, the engines have come up to the tower to pick up train orders. After receiving the train orders, the units will move back to their train and then head south down the valley to Tacoma. Notice that on this train order signal, that both blades are square.
BN train 90 passes the depot at Skykomish, WA on April 26, 1973. It has engines 875, 6525, and 6560. The train will pick up a helper here to get over Stevens Pass.
This collection is just a small portion of the signals I photographed during the 70s and early 80s.